Saturday, September 4, 2010

Three of My Favourite Rooms

I stole an hour from my usual routine yesterday and dropped in to the Kunsthaus for an hour.  Ignoring the exhibitions I headed for the museum’s permanent collection and, to my delight, three of my favourite rooms were completely empty.  What a way to spend a leisurely hour. 

I love this large room, lit by natural light coming through the glass ceiling.  The room itself is a work of art, with its original Jugendstil decorations.  Even the sofas look like works of art, but they are for sitting on.  The paintings on both walls, surrounding a statue from Rodin, are all from Edvard Munch.  This is, I believe, the largest public collection of Munch paintings outside of Norway.

These works, like Russian dolls, carry within them many shapes and hidden messages.  Sometimes a particular painting has something of Cezanne and the Cubists, but at another viewing Derain and the Fauvists suddenly appear. Perhaps it is characteristic of Munch, perhaps it is the light, or the room, or simply a change in my mood, but the paintings are never quiet stable, and so I return to them often.

Munch is not my favourite artist. His paintings are filled with his own angst, his self-obsessions, his own particular sufferings.  Munch’s famous attempt at suicide is ridiculously comic – he shot himself in his fingertip.  This gave him fodder for years and years of self-indulgent whining.  Such histrionics. His most famous painting, “The Scream” is partly horrifying but mainly just silly.  It’s no wonder that Munch appeals to tattooed, tormented teenagers dressed in black.  One only hopes they’ll grow out of it.

         Edvard Munch, Portrait of Albert Kollman, 1943-'44

And yet, for all that, he was a gifted painter and even, to a limited extent, a visionary.  I try to forget his ludicrously self-pitying personality, and focus on the paintings themselves, especially in this beautifully calm setting.

The second room is not really a room at all, but a passage between two rooms.  Again, the ceiling and walls are decorated in Jugendstil fashion. On either side of the doorway are two tall and narrow Japanesque paintings by Bonnard. They come from his Nabis period. The colours are intense, created with tiny brush strokes, and radiate a sense of calm beauty. The doorway frames the Degas painting of a bather, hung on a golden wall.  All three paintings are so perfectly placed, it is as if they belong right here. I cannot imagine them ever finding a better home.  This space is perfect.

The third room contains three of Monet’s giant water lilies paintings.  But the room contains a number of Rodin’s statues as well – that is the genius of this room.  I don’t know whose idea it was to drop five Rodins in among three Monets, but the effect is unique.  I can sit on the seat provided and stare at the Monets or Rodins, or walk around the room and study the works from various vantage points. I even kneel next to Rodin’s “Martyr” and stare into her dead eyes:

I get up close to a Monet:

 and closer,

 closer still, 

until the painting is no longer in focus,

and then I study the Monets while looking over the shoulder of a Rodin:

One can imagine having a small group of students here, and have them explore the various viewpoints.  Even better is to have the room to oneself on a sunny Friday morning.


  1. Perfect timing! Our National Gallery of Victoria’s 2010 block-buster exhibition is called European Masters: Städel Museum 19th-20th Century. I thought I was not a huge fan of early 20th century German expressionism because it was too emotional, too jagged and had too warped a vision of women.

    But the role of Munch was even more interesting. In 1892 he was invited to exhibit by the Berlin Artists' Association. His work was poorly received, and the exhibition in total closed down quickly. Yet somehow young Berlin artists saw something they admired and the whole, sad experience did (the future) German expressionism a heap of good.

    Munch's work might be unlikeable, but he certainly was influential.

  2. An enjoyable saunter through Zurich's Kunstmuseum which had me thinking of the Edvard Munch paintings I saw this summer in Oslo and Oskarstrand. When I was seventeen I hitched along Oslo fjord to try to get to Oskarstrand where Munch had had a studio - but I never made it and turned back. Finally completed the trip this summer, 37 years later. I still like his paintings. He's a wonderful colourist.

  3. Padraig, you are an incontrovertible romantic. Sounds like a great trip.

  4. What an enjoyable review of the exhibition, I particularly like the juxtaposition of the Rodin and the Monet. Very interested to read your comments about Munch too.

    Thanks for your recommendation of Ivan Klima's short stories by the way, I'll definitely look them up, I really enjoyed Love and Garbage and i love short stories!